My endeavor is to keep this short since I have to wake up at 6:45 so I can leave the house by 7:30 tomorrow morning. Grrr. I failed miserably at keeping this short. Good luck.
After work tonight, I went into Manhattan with a co-worker to meet up with some of her friends and her boyfriend. The occasion?
Well, about a month ago, Neil Gaiman posted about the PEN World Voices Festival in NYC and mentioned that he would be there and feeling rather nervous in his tummy about doing a reading with Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, Steve Martin, Kiran Desai, Nadine Gordimer and others. I was excited and bought a ticket, then emailed my co-worker to see if she was interested. She was and a plan was in place.
So, it was raining, we met up at a bar which was apparently far too much of a hot spot to give us a place to sit, so we crossed the street and went to Blue Bar, where they do have a $10,000 martini on the menu (“price varies with quality of diamond”). I went for a $15 signature cocktail – a Grapefruit Clarity, which was a grapefruit martini, very nice and sour, with a frozen cranberry thrown in for garnish and good measure. I enjoyed that.
And that martini, ladies and gentlemen, is all I’ve had to eat/drink since 1:00. Luckily, one martini + empty stomach at 7:00 didn’t leave me trashed (which is a risk when you’re taking medication).
The event was part of the Town Hall Readings, and the topic/theme was “Writing Home.” It was fantastic and wonderful – funny at times (a lot), somber, poignant, and just terrific and inspiring. I whipped out my Moleskine journal (as did several other people around me) and jotted down a few things I wanted to remember.
First, though, here’s the order in which the writers appeared and what they read – in case anyone is looking for what they read:
Intro by Salman Rushdie, during which he commented on the youth of the audience (as a good thing) and berated one gentlemen in particular (albeit in jocular fashion) for not turning off his cellphone.
Steve Martin read from an upcoming book about his beginnings in stand-up comedy called Born Standing Up. There was a particularly hilarious bit about his first gig in a bar/cafe in California which was a sort of hangout spot for bikers and hippies, and how part of his act was to sing a song that he claimed he learned from his grandmother. It started off innocently enough with lines like “Be kind to your neighbor…” etc. – and then verse two contained gems like, “Be obsequious and purple… be oblong and cut off your knees.” (I might be misquoting, but “obsequious” and “purple” and “oblong” were definitely in there).
Next, Pia Tafdrup, a Danish poet, read a few poems from one of her collections (though I’m uncertain of which one it was – possibly Queen’s Gate. There was a poem about growing up, a poem about her mother and a poem about her father, which she read in Danish and English. The poem about her father was especially lovely, and contained a line that I had to jot down — “Milky ways of morphine…” as she wove metaphors for his death in a hospital bed from astronomical terms. Her poem about learning the alphabet from her mother took its tropes from marine life; she described the letters as various forms of sea life – anemone angles, starfish points, etc. Lovely stuff.
Next up was Don DeLillo who, quite honestly, lost my readership a bit with Underworld. But I always like White Noise and I might give the new book he read from a try, loathe as I am to read a book about September 11th. It’s called Falling Man. He read a very powerful passage wherein the character is trying to get down to his apartment to feed his cats in the aftermath of the attack and has to move past various checkpoints in the city. On his way, he observes rescue workers, residents and others… one of them being a guy who gets out his cell phone to call a loved one and says, “I’m standing here,” and has to repeat himself since the person on the other end didn’t here him, “I’m standing here.” This line comes back once again at the end of the segment when the character says to himself, “I am standing here.” You don’t need a highlighter to figure that one out. There was also a great bit in there where the same guy talks about walking across the Brooklyn Bridge – “I don’t live in Brooklyn – I live down there, but everyone was going to the bridge, so I went too.” Which made me smirk a bit – for (hopefully) obvious reasons. Because if everyone jumped off a bridge…. maybe not. But if everyone crossed a bridge, I’m sure we all would too, given the circumstances.
Tatyana Tolstaya read from her novel, The Slynx , wherein a dystopian future Moscow has been destroyed by an explosion of some sort and people are living in desolation, guarding and hiding their warm socks as if they were the most valuable things on the planet… which, in that situation, they are.
Next up was Saadi Youssef, who read from (I think) a memoir or essay of some sort, though I don’t see one in print in English currently. It was also quite powerful and he had one line that struck me: “Exile includes the idea of abrogation.” He has lived almost his entire life in exile from Iraq, and his reading was about living over 50 years wandering the world, and what home means to him.
Kiran Desai was next and started off by saying that she was going to try to keep things short and NOT become the stereotypical “Indian behind a microphone.” (I was not aware this was a stereotype). She read a section from her most recent novel, The Inheritance of Loss, and it honestly gave me a whole different view of the book, hearing it with her inflection and personality. I read it and felt rather lukewarm about since it seemed quite somber in tone and left me unfulfilled with the ending. However, hearing her read it actually helped me find humor that I thought was bitter commentary when I read it in my “voice.” I will re-read. She was great.
Then, Alain Mabanckou read a really beautiful poem in French (which, amazingly enough, I understood enough of in the original language to both understand the tone and subject and perhaps get chose to appreciating a poem in a language I don’t speak fluently myself). Another reader read the translated version for him (which I find strange now that I see that Mr. Mabanckou is a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor). I’m not sure what collection this poem came from since I cannot find a collection listing the translator the reader mentioned – a John Keene/Keane/Kean/Keenan? I’ll keep hunting. It was a beautiful poem in English as well… about leaving home in the Congo, about finding a home elsewhere, dancing with one leg (implication being that a land mine was responsible for the loss of the other) but always having his true home back where his mother is buried. His newest book of poems is African Psycho
Following that was Neil Gaiman… who was truly the high point for me just because his voice is hypnotic. He appeared to be at ease (but having your hair in your face and being several hundred feet away from people can help convey this impression) and was the only author (that I remember) who said “Thank you” to the audience after applause had subsided between pieces and not just as an aside when walking off the stage. Neil read the epilogue to American Gods where the protagonist of the novel, Shadow, is in Reykjavik, pondering the meaning of going home and settling down… since it’s not something he’s ever done. It leads to a few questions – “what is home? Is it something you build and make, or a place you find or just settle into?”
Then, he read a poem that was part of his most recent collection, Fragile Things. The poem was the one called “Instructions.” He introduced it by saying, “This poem is about what to do if you find yourself in a fairy tale. It’s called ‘Instructions’.” I turned to my friend and said, “This one is GREAT!”
Afterwards, she told me she really liked that piece, and the bit from American Gods as well.
Nadine Gordimer was next, and she spoke about refugees (both political and economical) and specifically about refugees from Mozambique crossing into South Africa. The piece she read was from her collection, Jump. It’s written from the point of view of an 11-year old African girl whose family has been forced to flee to South Africa to escape the threat of rebels in their homeland – who have already, we infer, killed both the girl’s parents. Along the way, the girl, her sibling and grandmother must leave behind their old, weak grandfather and continue on. When they arrive in South Africa, they live in a refugee camp and the piece closed with a white woman reporter asking them if they want to go back home after the war ends; the grandmother replied that there was no such place.
Last was Salman Rushdie, who read sections from The Ground Beneath Her Feet which dealt with music, rebellion, exile and a thinly veiled commentary on his own political dealings, the fatwa against him for his perceived betrayal, etc. He was good – and he seemed to be quite aware of that fact. That didn’t detract from my enjoyment of his reading, but it was a little distracting (which I think are two different things.)
Finally, I didn’t know that they were signing books afterwards. Had I known, I would’ve brought some of my Rushdie, Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile”, my entire Gaiman library, my favorite DeLillo and the Desai title (since I have all of them already). As it was, the line to buy books was ridiculous and I decided to get another copy of a Gaiman book I already had – American Gods – and ask him to sign it. Why JUST Gaiman?
Rushdie left early, Martin wasn’t able to stay and DeLillo wasn’t signing at all. Gaiman stayed until the bitter bitter end so anyone who wanted him to sign a book got it signed. He signed people’s posters and old beat-up copies of books (which I recall him writing that he likes signing better than shiny new ones… had I known they were going to be signing, I’d have dragged along my much-loved but still fairly pristine copy of “Neverwhere.”)
He was the one I wanted to meet a bit more than the others since I can say that I ENJOY reading his books more than the others. The others may be “important” books and “great” books – and I don’t put them in quotes to denigrate them. I don’t want to feel like I’m one of 400,000 people who fawn over Rushdie and tell him how great he is and how brave and courageous his writing is – I just enjoy reading him because he’s funny and wacky, but he seems to be highly aware of his status… which is fine, but keeps me from thinking, “Now here’s someone I’d want to chat over tea with.”
But Neil Gaiman? I love reading his online journal, I love reading his books – and his fiction ‘voice’ is great. Absolutely charming. I’ve got a big old brain crush (and, well, I’m a sucker for the accent). I walked upstairs, got on line and was allowed ahead by some apparently hardcore fans who shared with me (in quasi-creepy form) how they could listen to his voice forever… (I enjoy it too, but forever is an obsessively long time). They were about 15 years older than I and had the sort of detailed knowledge that groupies possess… “He always brings a quill…” “He wrote that when he was still a journalist, you know…”
I walked up and said it was lovely to meet him. “Well, it’s lovely to be met” came the reply. Then he signed the book in a suitably funky fashion (the E was three horizontal bars and not an actual letter), wrote “Believe!” and signed his name. I thanked him kindly and went on my way. No fawning or blubbering – it was just nice to make eye contact, smile sincerely and walk off feeling a bit happier to have spoken to someone whose work is such a joy to me.
And a relatively new one at that; I’ve only come to appreciate him through his novels, starting with “Coraline” which drew me in and never let me go (whereas I think a lot of people knew him from the Sandman graphic novels, and I picked up one to see what it was about… and learned that, generally speaking, I prefer my words surrounded by whitespace so I can picture things for myself.)
All righty roo. I’ve got 5 hours until I have to wake up (it’s 1:16) but I’d never have been able to fall asleep without typing this all up and OUT of my head. And I’ll be adding tons of stuff to my Amazon wishlist shortly.
Spa day. Wedding prep. Rock.